OSAKIS, Minn. -- “Get out,” Mike Massman hollered from within his family’s pigeon loft. “Out!”
A faint fluttering of wings echoed within the enclosure before 36 pigeons emerged from the loft’s openings. The Massman family has owned anywhere from six to 120 pigeons in the last eight years. What started as something for the children to show at 4-H developed into pigeon racing.
“It just kinda took off from there,” Massman said.
The Osakis, Minn., family races in two seasons every year. “Old birds,” pigeons that are at least a year old are flown in May and June, and “young birds,” pigeons that hatched the year of the races, are flown in August and September.
Along with 10 families from the surrounding area, the Massmans bring their birds and join together with other club members on Friday nights. The first two or three races this year were postponed due to COVID-19, but the size of the group remained the same. Old bird races continued through the regular season, and club members practiced social distancing.
The birds are scanned in and registered for the races with the electronic bands attached to their legs. The pigeons are then placed in baskets in a trailer and transported to the starting location.
From there, the pigeons race back to their respective homes. When the pigeons re-enter their loft, they cross a metal strip that clocks them back in and signals the time they land.
A loft is like a “fancy chicken coop” with in and out doors, according to Mike’s daughter, Kendra. The doors leave room for the pigeons to go out flying every day. In order for a bird to get accustomed to a loft, they have to be established in their permanent home before they turn 6 weeks old.
“Some people ask, ‘How do you know where they’re flying? How do you know that they’ve got to fly out to Watertown?’” Mike said. “It’s the other way around. We haul them out so that they come back.”
The GPS coordinates as well as the start and end time of each pigeon’s journey are entered into a computer program to determine the pigeon’s speed.
If the weather dips below 45 degrees, Mike said they postpone races. He said this can be difficult to plan for, especially when some of the flights start about 300 miles away.
Club members take turns driving to the release points. They look for a wide open space in a field, by the side of the road or at a truck stop to release the birds, trying to avoid any power lines or other flight obstructions.
After driving, they give the pigeons water and let them rest for at least a half hour. They wait for confirmation from the club liberator to make sure the weather will be clear.
Young birds race between 100 and 300 miles, and old birds travel up to 600 miles.
Mike said the family’s pigeons have traveled back to Osakis from places as far as Topeka, Kan., for races.
“I’ve had a few good birds, but mine are usually in the middle of the pack,” Mike said.
Kendra, 16, has been racing pigeons for half her life. She said she enjoys travelling with her father to some of the towns where they release the pigeons, such as Watertown and Sisseton, S.D.
“It’s pretty fun going there and just seeing how many birds you release,” Kendra said. “You probably have close to 300 birds getting released at one time. It’s just amazing.”
Kris Massman, Mike’s wife, said they’ve also made some close friends in the club, firing off in a group text message every time another bird makes it home.
“It’s kinda strange to me that people don’t understand how pigeons work,” Kris Massman said.
“How their ears work and how they can find their way back home from states away,” Kendra said, finishing her mother’s thought.
Kris said the hardest parts of owning and racing pigeons are training the birds and keeping them healthy. One family's pigeon loft can be kept sanitary, but their birds are frequently flying with other birds that could be carrying diseases. Others have had problems with predators, including hawks, owls and hunters.
Kendra said they’ll sometimes get a call from their neighbors who tell them there’s a pigeon at their house that won’t leave.
“Get it some water, and maybe it’ll take off and finish its way home,” Kris said.
After letting the pigeons out for an afternoon flight, Mike said they’d be back to the loft within an hour, cooped up and ready to clock in for their next race.